Failed States, Failed Lives

There was a crisis in the camp of Israel. Korach, a wealthy and popular leader, was challenging Moses and Aaron. Why, argued Korach, should Aaron be the high priest? Is this a classic case of nepotism? Does he deserve the job, or is it because he is Moses's brother? The entire congregation is holy, says Korach, so we should share the wealth.

In order to put these sentiments to rest, God commands Moses to gather the wooden staffs of all of the princes of the tribes. Together with Aaron's staff, these will be placed in the Tabernacle overnight. In the morning, people will see whom God chooses to be His High Priest. When they come back the next morning, Aaron's staff has bloomed. More specifically, it has blossomed with a flower, then has sent forth a shoot, and finally has grown almonds. These three things are very significant.

The famous saying of Hillel goes, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?" These three rhetorical questions are addressed, and may be inspired by, the staff of Aaron. Let me explain.

The flower that blossomed represents the unique gifts of each individual. This is the first part of Hillel's saying, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" We have a primary responsibility to develop our own talents and gifts. If we don't sharpen our own saw, it will never be sharpened.

The shoot that came out implies an outward focus. Indeed, one of the garments of the High Priest was called the "Tzitz," the same word used for shoot in this story. On this garment, which the priest wore on his forehead, was written in the Divine Name. It was intended for all to see and draw inspiration from. It exemplifies the required outward focus of the high priest. Thus, says Hillel, "And if I am for myself alone, what am I?"

The third element of the staff of Aaron was the blossoming of the almonds. Almonds are the quickest of the fruits. The Hebrew word for almond, "Shaked," is also used to mean alacrity and enthusiasm. It implies moving fast, with gusto. Hence, the third element in Hillel's saying matches is perfectly: "And if not now, then when?"

Thus, the ideal man and woman will nurture their gifts and talents, gain education and work to refine their character. This is all done with a goal of service to humanity, not selfish accomplishment. Finally, this person senses the urgency of the mission and does not delay even for a moment. The world needs you now, not when you think you're good and ready.

This got me to thinking, why do we need to be focused outward? If I said at a table and feed the person next to me, and they feed the person next to them, and so on, we will certainly all eat a meal. But why must it be done that way? Why can't we just feed ourselves and have the same result? In other words, why not take care of ourselves and make that our focus, so that nobody else needs to take care of us? We can even make allowance for the extreme circumstances when someone does need another to take care of them.

Another teaching of the sages of the Mishna evaluates the way people relate to wealth and property. "One who says ' What is yours is yours, and what his mind is mine,' is an average person. Some sages teach that this is the attribute of Sodom." That is quite an argument! We go from average to the extreme evil of Sodom! What does this mean?

I don't believe one need say there is an argument here. One sages simply stressing statistics, that most people take the approach of "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours." The other sage counters that this is a very bad approach, it is the approach of Sodom. The focus on me, while in the short term it may not cause major problems, in the long term can devolve into fascism and unspeakable cruelty. The difference between the Hillel approach and the Sodom approach is the difference of connection versus division.

Modern Western countries are focused on the rights of their citizens. People speak up, demonstrate, become active politically and vote based on who is going to protect their rights better. I believe this is a very bad thing. President Kennedy decried this in his famous saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Nowadays this has been flipped on its head.

Judaism is not a religion of rights, it is a system of responsibilities. It teaches us not that the poor have a right to bread, but rather that the rich have a responsibility to give bread to the poor. It is a subtle difference, but it is a world of difference.

The origin of societies was based upon what is called the "Social contract." The idea was that we band together for the common good, and to prevent any individuals from exploiting others. We agreed to behave nicely to others so that they do not kill us. There is no underlying concept of unity here, only a practical arrangement to prevent anarchy. The obvious flaw of the social contract is in the situation when one group becomes stronger than another, and no longer needs the social contract.

A poignant historical example of this is the Islamic treatment of treaties. Mohamed made a treaty for 10 years of peace with the tribe of Qureish in Mecca. As soon as he was strong enough, only two years into that treaty, he returned and massacred them all. So much for the lasting value of the social contract. This is exactly what we see happening in the Middle East today.

In America today, we are seeing worrying signs of societal disintegration. At the same time, there is a very troubling political hostility in the air. I believe this is a direct result of the emphasis of rights over responsibilities. That emphasis, although more refined, is still part of the social contract approach. Everybody is shouting "give me my right to do whatever the heck I want and the rest of you can do whatever the heck you want." The emphasis on me contains within it the seeds of division, and we see this happening before our very eyes.

God wants man to be focused outward. God wants man to understand that his purpose in life is to fulfill his responsibility towards humanity. God wants man to be dedicated to the fixing of the world. Certainly people deserve rights, but the way they must get those rights is through others fulfilling their responsibility to protect them. I am afraid that in the Western world, the nations have no goal other than to keep things quiet. There is no unifying vision that casts responsibility on every member of society. If there would be, things would be quite different.

I believe that the Western world needs to find a new mission, and that mission is an urgent one. It is to save the innocent victims of the barbarism rocking the Middle East. It is to teach the world the meaning of "love thy neighbor," and to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the "other."

This is the message of Aaron's staff. The essence of life is to use all of the wonderful gifts that God gave each of us to reach out and improve the world. The world needs constant improvement, and cannot wait. Someone who is truly dedicated to this task cannot sit idly by, even if they think they are not ready.

Korach's unusual demise

Indeed, Korach's unusual demise demands an explanation. In most instances, the Israelites who sinned were struck down in a plague. And even in this story, there is an alternative punishment used for other rebels. Moses tells all those who would presume to the priesthood to bring incense to the tabernacle. They do, and at the critical moment, they are consumed in fire. That, at least, is a punishment we have encountered elsewhere. Aaron's own sons, Nadav and Avihu, died in a Divine fire after having brought a sacrifice "that they were not commanded to bring."

Our sages in the Mishna tell us of 10 things that were created in the last hour before that first Sabbath in Genesis. One of them was the "mouth of the earth" which swallowed Korach and his fellow rebels. So we know it was unique, but why was it deserved? Let's take a closer look at his sin.

The rabbis trace the genesis of Korach's rebellion to his being passed over for the presidency of the tribe of Levi. Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, was the oldest of the four sons of Kehat, one of the three main branches of the Levites. Korach was the son of Yizhar, the second oldest. He, therefore, felt he should have had the next position of authority, and be the Prince of the tribe of Levi. Instead, it went to a man named Elitzafan, who was the son of the youngest brother, Uziel.

In addition, Korach, as a Levi, had to shave off all of his bodily hair. When his wife saw him like that, she convinced him that Moses had made up this law in order to humiliate him. She fed his paranoia by reminding him of the slight of his non-choice as Prince of the Levites. In other words, he was fed a whole lot of jealousy which pushed him to rebellion.

Now, it's not politically wise to rebel on the basis of one's own personal ambitions. One needs a higher cause, and so Korach created a populist movement. "The entire congregation is holy! God is in their midst! Why should you (Moses and Aaron) raise yourselves above the congregation of God?"

In order to amplify his populist complaints, he created a visual stunt. He had 250 people dress up in garments that were entirely made of sky blue coloring. He marched them over to Moses, and asked Moses a question: "do these garments require fringes?" There is a commandment to put fringes on the corners of a four-cornered garment. One of those strings must be of the sky blue coloring. Moses responded that yes, indeed, even if the entire garment is made of sky-blue, it requires the fringes.

Korach mocked this response. "This is illogical," he said, "because if one thread of sky-blue is sufficient to render a garment permissible, then if the garment is entirely made of sky-blue it should certainly be permissible on its own, without additional fringes." In other words, if the people are all holy, there is no need for spiritual leadership. We are all sky-blue, we need no fringes.

All of that being said, I still don't see why a special death needed to be created for Korach and his people. Yes, he was jealous. Yes, he was rebelling. So were the spies, so were those who worshipped the Golden calf. They weren't swallowed up by the ground. Korach and his people were. Why?

There was one other instance when death by burial in the earth was presented. It is not written in the Torah. This story is found in rabbinical commentaries. Who was threatened by this death? The entire Jewish people. At what time? As they were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. The rabbis tell us that God held the mountain above their heads and said, "if you accept the Torah, all will be well. If not, there shall be your graves."

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, questions the need for such a threat. Didn't the Israelites famously respond to God's offer of the Torah with, "We shall do and we shall learn?" They were eager to receive the Torah! Why threaten them with burial?

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests a powerful resolution to this question. He explains how the people were glad to receive the Torah… for themselves. They, after all, had witnessed the miracles of the Exodus. For them, faith was easy, and so accepting the Torah was a natural response.

But that generation was reluctant to accept the Torah on behalf of its descendants. They feared that their great-grandchildren, not having seen God's power, might not be willing to observe the Torah properly. Thus, they would be liable to punishment. To protect them, by not obligating them in the first place, the people were not ready to accept the Torah on their behalf. Just for themselves, not for their children.

To this, God says that by not accepting the Torah for their descendants, they are giving away immortality. Their generation will be the only one to keep the Torah, and when they are gone, so shall the Torah in this world be gone. They will figuratively be buried under the Mount Sinai that could've been the beginning of an unbroken chain.

Perhaps this is the danger in Korach's rebellion. By seeking to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron, by seeking to deny the importance of spiritual leadership, Korach endangers the future of the Jewish people. The Judaism of Korach might last a generation, but no further. Why? Because Torah leadership requires the people to be in a process of constant growth. Leaders are the teachers, and learning is the key to Jewish survival. Education is central to our religion. Our most central prayer is the Shema, which enjoins us to "make (the words of Torah) them sharp in the mouths of your children and children's children."

Korach claimed that a person can achieve sufficient Jewish knowledge and spirituality. Once he reaches that level, further growth, and hence, leadership, become unnecessary. The symbolism of the garment made of sky-blue is a perfect metaphor. Moses's replies to Korach that there is no such thing as a garment that does not require the fringes, the strings that go out of the corners. Those strings symbolize the need for constant growth, for constant perfection. They teach us that a garment, no matter how beautiful, is not complete without something coming out of it.

Interestingly, the sequel to the story of Korach is the story of how the princes of the tribes were instructed to bring their staffs to the tabernacle. They would leave them there overnight, and the staff that would blossom and bloom would be that of God's chosen high priest. Sure enough, it was Aaron's staff that grew almonds and flowers. The Hebrew phrase for this is "Vayatzetz tzitz." The Hebrew word for fringes is "Tzitzit." In other words, Aaron's job is to be the fringes, the leader who helps the people to constantly grow. The commandment of Tzitzit, fringes, is given "to all their (Israel's) generations." In other words, there is something about this mitzvah that relates to the future of the Jewish people through their children.

And, interestingly, the rabbis have a sequel to this entire story about what happened underground. The sons of Korach, who were also swallowed up, did not die. They remained on a ledge beneath the Earth's surface, where, according to Talmudic legend, they can still be heard saying, "Moses is true, his Torah is true, and we are the falsifiers."

Korach's sin was to undermine our spiritual leaders, and remove the need for spiritual growth. Such a Judaism could never last, and thus his punishment of burial was a fulfillment of what God had threatened at Mount Sinai. He refused to accept the Torah for his future generations, and thus he was indeed buried. Our emphasis must always be on education, on transmitting the traditions to the next generation. We are part of the chain, and our Torah leaders are the ones who bring that tradition to us from our ancestors. Without them, if Korach had succeeded, we would've had no one to give us those traditions.

how to cancel Tisha B'av

When God saw the people cry at the report of the spies, he decreed that the entire generation would perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years. In reaction, the people came to Moses contritely, admitted that they had sinned, and declared that they were ready to go up to the land of Israel right away. Moses refused them permission, saying that God would not be with them and they would be destroyed.

That is what happened. They attempted to go up to the land the next day, and were chased back by the Canaanites and Amalekites to a place, or situation, called "Destruction." Why was there repentance not accepted? After all, they didn't wait! They immediately wanted to correct the sin and go into The Land. What did they do wrong?

The Seforno puts it in stark terms. Initially, the people have refused to go to the land from fear. They failed to obey God and Moses, and cried in their tents that night. Now, they again refuse to obey God and Moses by insisting on going up. This time, however, their disobedience is not because of fear, but because of rebelliousness. They are rejecting God's decision and Moses's instruction. They are repeating the sin of the spies, although this time as an open rebellion.

But I think there is something more involved. Caleb, alone among the spies, chose to stand with Joshua and Moses. He gave the other spies the impression he was in with them, but at the fateful moment, stood up and told the people "let us go up to the land, for we certainly can conquer it." Where did he get the courage and determination to do so?

A fascinating and novel understanding of this entire story is waiting to be discovered. And that is, that the sin of the spies is a repeat of the sale of Joseph. At the end of the previous Torah reading, we read about two men, Eldad and Medad, who were reciting prophecies in the midst of the camp. What were they saying? "Moses is going to die, and Joshua will need the people into the land of Israel."

Now, the spies that Moses sent were all princes of their tribes. Each of them was a potential successor to Moses. Moses knew this, and feared for the welfare of his disciple, Joshua. Just as the brothers had attempted to remove Joseph as a potential leader, Moses fear the spies would do the same to Joshua. Therefore, he prayed for him, "May God protect you from the plotting of the spies."

What Moses had not imagined was that the spies would be willing to sacrifice the land of Israel in order to prevent that prophecy from coming true! He did not expect an answer in the spirit of the mother who, when King Solomon said to cut the child in half in order to be fair to the two claimants, said, "I will not have him, and you will not have him."

But that is what happened. The sin of the spies was not simply fear of entering the land of Israel. It was using the land of Israel as a bludgeon against a fellow Jew. It was the extreme of selfishness, and it was the same sin that caused the destruction of the Holy Temple on that same calendar date.

The hero of the story of Joseph was Judah. He stood before Jacob and proclaimed, about Benjamin, "I am his guarantor. Demand his safety from my hand. If I do not bring him back to my father, I will be sinning to my father all of my days." Judah taught us the principle of mutual responsibility. We are inextricably interwoven with each other and must be together as a people. The definition of togetherness is not necessarily agreeing or thinking the same, but rather it is standing together as one people at all times. The four species we shake on Sukkot represent the spectrum of Jews, from the most observant and knowledgeable to the least so. Nonetheless, we are moved, we are shaken, but we remain bound together. The people of Israel, the Land of Israel, the God of Israel, all together.

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, of blessed memory, explained that this is the origin of our national name, the Jews. Jew comes from Judah, and expresses this idea of mutual responsibility and destiny. Yes, it is also because we are descended, for the most part, from the tribe of Judah. But that, also, it is because of this attribute. The 10 lost Tribes disappeared because they refused to stand together with the rest of the people. They rebelled, they seceded. They disappeared. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the King, and to the Temple in Jerusalem.

If the spies were all rivals to Joshua for the leadership of the people, there was no stronger rival than Caleb. From the tribe of Judah, the mantle of leadership could authentically be given to him. And, yet, he alone refused to be part of that game. This was because he understood that what was at play was not who was more eligible to be the leader. The question was, do we stand together or not? His deep sense of areivut, of mutual responsibility, required him to stand with Joshua and Moses, and with God.

Now we can understand why, on that very next day, the people's attempt to go to Israel was an additional sin, rather than repentance. When Moses told them that God would not go with them, they needed to choose togetherness. They needed to say, "if the whole nation comes, we will come. If not, we will stand with the people, wherever they are."

And an additional point. The spies were right, Canaanites and Amalekites were stronger than the Israelites. But they were not stronger than the Israelites plus God! The spies had used the word "Efes, or nothing." If we go forth with nothing, they will clobber us. We go forth with One, the one God, in Unity and oneness, we are invincible. The Israelites who attempted to go into Israel the day after, went forth with efes-nothing, and not with One.

So, how can we cancel the fast of Tisha b'Av? By understanding the true dynamics of the sin of the spies. We need to choose to love The Land of Israel, so much so that no politics or arguments can get in the way of that love. We need to choose to love our fellow people of Israel, so much so that no disagreements can cause us to stand apart. And, finally, we need to choose to love God, so much so that if God does not wish us to leave the camp, we stay with God.

The Honor of the Elderly

There are two types of seniors mentioned in the verse: the white-haired and the old one. Likewise, there are two actions mentioned in the verse: to rise up, and to honor or glorify. Rising, or standing up, is mandated for the white-haired, and glorifying is mandated for the old one. Who are we talking about, and what are these behaviors teaching us?

The commentaries explain that the white-haired one is simply an aged person, regardless of their knowledge or character. If they have reached old age, we are to rise up before them. The old one, in Hebrew "zaken," refers to one who has "acquired wisdom." Because they are not just elderly, but also wise and righteous, a higher level of honor must be accorded, we must "glorify the countenance of the old one."

The sages read the verse in a way that implies that both the white-haired and the sage deserve both forms of respect, rising up and being glorified. If so, we need to understand why the elderly one, who is not a scholar or an exceptionally righteous one, receives the same treatment as the older sage. And more, the verse could've been rewritten simply, as follows: "You shall rise up and glorify the white-haired one and the elderly sage."

A possible reason they are both worthy of standing and glorifying is that they both teach us important life lessons. The Torah never tells us to bow to them, because that action is exclusively for the benefit of these elderly people. The Torah wants us to honor them not just for them, but for ourselves as well. It is obvious what we can learn from the elderly sage, as they have much wisdom to impart. But what about the white-haired non-sage?

First of all, any human being who reaches an elderly age, has amassed a wealth of life experience. For sure, elderly people can hold wrong opinions, and can even be of evil character. But generally, their life wisdom is something that younger people need to access.

Some commentaries bring a negative reason to honor them, in that we learn from imperfect older people in an inverse way. We learn from them how not to be. Hugh Hefner, as an extreme example, is a tragic elderly figure. His entire life was given over to lust. Well into his 80s, he felt forced to keep up that illusion, hosting parties at his mansion as if he were 30 years old, although now he was fueled by Viagra. How tragic! Do we really need to honor him?

Certainly not, but we do need to learn from him. We need to learn the lesson that a life wasted on lust and passion brings no fulfillment. When the contrast his example with that of an elderly Torah scholar, our own correct path in life becomes clearer. We have a choice to make.

I believe that is the deep meaning of this verse, and why it was written in two parts. If we rise up for the imperfect elderly one, and learn from their example even in a negative way, we will come to glorify the countenance of the elderly sage. That negative learning may be the most valuable lesson of life! Our sages teach us in the Mishna, "whoever learns even one thing from his friend must show him respect." Learning by seeing the negative consequences of poor life choices is learning, and even though the subject is not an exceptionally worthy one, they have done us a great service. We honor them because of the lesson they are teaching us, even if it is not intentional.

But in most cases, they can teach us an intentional lesson. In most cases, a simple elderly person may have a powerful spiritual message to impart. I recall reading of a pastor who had been kidnapped and nearly killed as a child by a sexual predator. Years later, after he grew up, he became aware that this criminal, who had never been convicted, was living in an old age home. He mustered his strength, and went to meet the man who had left him for dead when he was just a young boy.

At first, the man denied that he had anything to do with the event, and claimed not to know who this pastor was. The pastor, who had every moment of that encounter of his youth engraved in his memory, told him the story step by step. Finally, the old man broke down in tears, and began begging for forgiveness. And that is the most powerful lesson of old age, the lesson of repentance.

For this, we have our patriarch Abraham to thank. According to the sages, Abraham was the first human being to grow old. The reason given was that until he introduced old age, people couldn't tell the fathers from the sons apart. An explanation that I heard relates directly to the issue of repentance. Why do old people repent, and gained such wisdom? Because of two things: 1. They become more aware of their legacy, and 2. Their passions and drives become weaker, allowing their spirituality to become strong.

Aging is the gift of Abraham. And, so, many rabbis interpret this verse to refer to Abraham himself. They focus on the phrase "to rise up," and interpreted to mean "repent." Thus, the verse becomes a blueprint for life: Repent before you become white-haired, and as a result you will have a glorified old age.

I wish to add that "rising up" is an important instruction to us. When a person is sitting, they are not accomplishing or changing. When they stand up, they are now ready to move, change things in the world and accomplish. Rise up before it's too late, and learn from the example of the glorious old one, Abraham. Abraham never tired of spreading God's name in the world. When he was in pain after his circumcision, he forced himself to run out to the road to welcome in guests. When guests came to Abraham's tent, he taught them to give thanks to God for the food they eat and the blessings they have. Abraham traveled the land in every direction, calling out in the name of the Lord.

If was this Abraham who consciously chose to age, so that his lessons would continue to posterity. They must inspire us to rise up, throw off the laziness that paralyzes us, and begin following his example of spreading God's name and filling the world with loving kindness.